By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; 8:35 PM
IN MOGADISHU, SOMALIA During the day, Mohamed Mahmoud counts the African Union peacekeepers in his neighborhood and notes their locations. At night, he gives the information to his handlers in the radical al-Shabab militia, undermining the U.S.-backed government that the peacekeepers support.
"We are everywhere," he said.
In the deadly contest for the capital, spies like Mahmoud work in the shadows of this failed state's civil war. The militants they assist have weakened the government and limited its ability to protect the population, tactics used by insurgents in Baghdad, Karachi and Kabul.
"We're fighting one war in the open, and another war below the surface," said Abdiraheem Addo, a military commander and close associate of Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.
Conversations with spies and former spies in Mogadishu provide a rare look into how al-Shabab, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, operates in government-controlled areas. Its increasing role here helps explain how the government and 6,000 peacekeepers, supported by hundreds of millions of dollars from Washington and its allies, have been unable to quell a ragtag guerrilla force with little public support.
Mahmoud, 41, was approached through an intermediary and agreed to speak if his full name was not used. Somalis often use three or four surnames. Somali officials and defected Shabab commanders corroborated details that Mahmoud provided.
As he spoke, during an interview inside a building less than a quarter mile from Somalia's presidential palace, the sounds of artillery and gunfire reverberated. Somali soldiers and security officials patrolled the area outside. But Mahmoud did not seem concerned.
"I enter every place freely," he said, smiling.Lured by common beliefs
Mahmoud lives in Hamarwane, a neighborhood near the port that is walking distance from key government ministries. A father of 10, he said al-Shabab pays him $100 a month and helps with his rent and food.
"I don't do this for money," said Mahmoud, who has a beard but no moustache and was wearing a traditional tan garment and brown sandals. "I believe in everything al-Shabab stands for."
Mahmoud first joined an armed wing of a moderate Islamist movement that rose up against Somalia's corrupt warlords in 2005. The following year, Ethiopia - backed by covert funds from the Bush administration - invaded the country. By 2007, Mahmoud was fighting on the front lines for al-Shabab, which had emerged as a radical force of its own.
After the Ethiopians pulled out of Somalia last year, al-Shabab consolidated its grip over large patches of southern and central Somalia. They have imposed Taliban-like decrees, banning soccer, music, even bras. This year, the militants publicly declared allegiance to al-Qaeda and intensified their push into the capital, where the government controls only a few miles.
The militia's most recent assault occurred Thursday when suicide bombers and gunmen detonated two car bombs at Mogadishu's airport, killing as many as nine people, including soldiers and beggars. The African Union's main base is at the airport. The bombing occurred as senior U.N. officials arrived for an unannounced high-level meeting with Somali officials, suggesting the militants may have had prior knowledge of the visit. None of the U.N. officials was hurt.
In previous days, the militia briefly took control of a strategic road coursing through the capital; killed four peacekeepers with a mortar attack on the presidential palace; and attacked the Hotel Muna, nestled in a zone filled with government ministries, killing 31 people, including six lawmakers.
"They are shifting tactics. They are not as much trying to capture space as much they are trying to disrupt, to create fear and anxiety," said Ahmed Abdisalam Xaji Adan, Somalia's national security minister. "We have to fight intelligence with intelligence. We have to get better information, we have to get better organized."
The militia's goal is "to take over the whole country and rule it as an Islamic emirate," Mahmoud said. Foreign jihadists in the militia who were trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan have become influential, he said; he expects more attacks in countries aligned with the West or perceived as "invaders," such as the twin bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala in July that killed more than 70 fans watching the World Cup. Most of the peacekeepers in Somalia are Ugandan.
"We won't stop at our borders," Mahmoud declared.Inside the cells
Last year, Mahmoud joined an al-Shabab surveillance cell that operates in government areas. Many members of his sub-clan live in his neighborhood, allowing him to move around freely.
"When we want to conduct operations inside government areas, we take the public transport, we blend in with the normal people," he said. "Sometimes we rent a safe house where we can make bombs."
Each cell has three to eight operatives, each with a purpose, he said. Some plant roadside bombs, others throw grenades at government vehicles. There are cells that stage assassinations, and others that procure weapons and transport them into government areas.
Every morning, after he surveys his enclave, he makes his way toward Kilometer 4, the capital's commercial area. He observes the peacekeepers and government security personnel, then makes his way to the airport to see whether any government officials, new soldiers or Westerners have arrived. He has his own web of informants who provide intelligence, he said.
If the information is particularly vital or sensitive, his superiors dispatch an agent to meet with Mahmoud in government areas. "Then, that man will take the intelligence to someone senior in al-Shabab," he said.
Anis Sheikh Abdullahi led a cell of al-Shabab assassins who worked in government-controlled territory. Their targets included military and police commanders, religious leaders, government officials, prominent businessman, journalists - anyone who opposed the militia.
His most successful attack: His five-member team tossed plastic bags of explosives on the side of the road from the airport and detonated them as three government vehicles passed, killing several people.
Once, he said, he drove a truck to the port, which is guarded by peacekeepers and Somali soldiers, and picked up barrels of oil. Some of the containers contained smuggled land mines, he said.
"It is very easy for al-Shabab to operate here," said Abdullahi, who defected from the militia seven months ago after he learned he was being targeted for assassination for disobeying an order.
Today, Abdullahi, a tall, thin man with rectangular eyeglasses, fights for the government. His main job is to stop al-Shabab spies and cells working in government-controlled areas.
"Last week, we killed two al-Shabab," he said. "Last month, we killed five."
But the militia has as many as 1,000 spies living in government areas, many in strategic places near the airport, port and the presidential palace, he said. Cells also operate in mosques and Koranic schools.
The militia allows their spies to have fashionable haircuts and smoke cigarettes "so that the government won't suspect they are al-Shabab," Abdullahi said. In Shabab areas, such practices are punishable by lashes.
He described men like Mahmoud as part of "the most important division of al-Shabab."Infiltrating government
"We haven't been paid in months," a soldier yelled on a recent day, pointing his gun at a vehicle carrying a Western journalist. "If there is a [lawmaker] inside, tell him to get out so we can kill him."
The militants have tapped into such frustrations. They have recruited government soldiers with promises of cash, said Abdirahman Omar Osman, Somalia's information minister. The militants have also probably infiltrated government ministries and the police, Abdullahi said.
"They have money. And the government is poor," he said.
The militants' success at penetrating the government was apparent in the attack on the Hotel Muna, which took two months to plan, Mahmoud said. A cell based in one of Mogadishu's oldest quarters planned the attack. Operatives studied the place, assessing the number of armed guards and bodyguards protecting officials.
But the central strategy was the element of surprise: The two assailants, strapped with explosives, wore Somali military uniforms.
"It was easy to get the uniforms," Mahmoud said. "We bought them for $10 from some soldiers."